City granting reprieve to `blue bag' recycling

Trash to be collected once a week unless tax rises, officials say

May 22, 2001|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Budget officials told the City Council yesterday that Baltimore will continue its curbside "blue bag" recycling program, but that the city will have to go to one-day-a-week trash collection unless Mayor Martin O'Malley's proposed income tax increase is approved.

In a budget hearing, administration officials told council members that the city would pick up trash one day a week and recyclables one day a week under the proposed budget for the next fiscal year, which will begin July 1.

Budget officials also told the council that without the proposed 20 percent income tax increase, it would close 20 recreation centers and lay off more than 300 city workers.

It appears likely, however, that the city will not reduce the number of trash-collection days or close the centers, because many of the 19 council members have made it clear that they will support a tax increase to avoid making unpopular budget cuts.

The mayor has decided against one politically unpopular cut, the curbside pick-ups of "blue bags" of plastics, bottles and cans.

"It looks like there may be a way to [sort] the things we collect before we sell them and increase the value" of the recyclables, O'Malley said in an interview yesterday. "Besides, recycling is an important thing."

The mayor's preliminary budget plan, issued in late March, recommended discontinuing the blue bag program, but environmentalists protested and some council members raised objections. O'Malley then asked a group of environmentalists to come up with a way to make the program more cost-effective or even profitable, and he has restored the program in the $1.66 billion operating budget submitted to the City Council this month.

"We certainly thought there were ways to make it much more economical and to even save money through increased recycling," said Daniel J. Pontious, chairman of the city's Commission on Resource Conservation and Recycling, which made recommendations this month to the mayor on how to preserve the program.

The council's budget hearing at City Hall yesterday, the first of a series of hearings that will end next week, was in part a political exercise in that the mayor and the council know they won't end up making some of the proposed cuts. But the threat of the cuts helps many council members make the case for another politically unpopular move, increasing taxes.

"This city is too dirty to even think about one-day-a-week trash pickup," said Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., a Southeast Baltimore Democrat who chairs the council's Budget Committee.

"Heaven knows what else is going to be eliminated if we don't pass these revenue enhancements," said Councilwoman Lois Garey, a Southeast Baltimore Democrat.

O'Malley has asked the council to pass two tax proposals, a 20 percent increase in the income tax, to 3.05 percent, which would be expected to raise $10.6 million next year; and an expansion of the city's 8 percent energy tax on nonprofits, which would be expected to raise $4 million next year. Both are pending before the council.

Budget Director Henry J. Raymond said the income tax increase would ensure two-day-a-week trash collection and that 20 recreation centers and five walk-to pools would remain open. He said later in an interview that the blue-bag program would remain if the increase were approved.

The tax increase also would save more than 100 jobs in the Department of Public Works and the Department of Recreation and Parks, according to budget documents.

The energy tax increase would mean avoiding job cuts elsewhere in the city government, Raymond said. Even with both tax increases, the city would lay off janitors and security guards under a plan to privatize those services, he said.

The council is scheduled to vote on the budget next month.

O'Malley could have avoided proposing the reductions in trash collections and recreation centers by assuming the passage of his tax proposals in the budget. But he said in an interview yesterday that he didn't want to make that assumption, which he said his predecessor, Kurt L. Schmoke, did once.

"Mayor Schmoke assumed the passage of a tax as part of his budget, and a lot of us, including myself, were bent out of shape that he would presume that we would pass it," said the former city councilman. "I told the council that I didn't want to be presumptuous."

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